The Man With the Iron Fists marks founding Wu-Tang Clan member and kung-fu film fanatic RZA’s debut as a feature director. Having scored Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai in 1999, RZA went on to collaborate with Quentin Tarantino on the soundtrack to his 2003-04 martial arts two-parter, Kill Bill, where the two seem to have formed a bond, with The Man with the Iron Fists coming “presented by Quentin Tarantino”.
Set in 19th Century China, the titular character (played by RZA) is a blacksmith who makes weapons, though this tale is no more his story than any number of entrants seemingly selected at random from the character select screen of Street Fighter II. Narrated by the blacksmith who says lines like “when it comes to money, things get funny”, the film has a similar plot-to-fight scene ratio as those early ‘90s beat-em-up video games, with the odd line of dialogue serving to string one action sequence to the next, making further explanation of it futile. Being a martial arts film this isn’t surprising, expected even, but at least those video games were fun.
With character names like, Mr Knife (Crowe), Madam Blossom (Liu) and Brass Body (Bautista), the film shouldn’t take itself too seriously, yet the actors' propensity to do so results in an odd mix of hyper-violence and camp. Veteran choreographer Corey Yuen’s fight sequences are at times entertaining but lack any zip, freshness or originality and would have perhaps been served better under a more experienced action director. Co-written and produced by Roth, the fetishised violence is graphic-yet-cartoonish and is little substitute for actual thrills or excitement.
When Tarantino was making Kill Bill in 2003, RZA spent time with him and made notes on how he directed, though it appears his notes pertained to Tarantino’s penchant for homage, proclivity for violence and occasional flirtation with self-indulgence. In interviews with RZA his affection for kung fu is infectious, ubiquitous in the lineage of his body of work, though as a writer/director it’s hard to see what he’s bringing to the table. Whatever criticisms can be levelled at Tarantino, his films can display levels of energy and enthusiasm unmatched in modern filmmaking, and it’s this upon which RZA needs to make notes next time he visits his friend’s movie set.
EXTRAS ★★★ Unrated – Extended cut (107 minutes). Deleted scenes (24 minutes). A Look Inside - introduction from RZA (2 minutes). Path to the East – featurette (2 minutes). On Set with RZA – 5x mini featurettes (5x 1 minute).